In preparation for teaching a research course in which I am embracing feedback focused assessment (going gradeless in a way). I have finally begun to delve into some of the evidence around grading. I found Schinske and Tanner (2014)‘s discussion of grading particularly intriguing. They draw attention to the controversy surrounding the merits and validity of present-day grading system.

PixLoger / Pixabay

We spend a lot of time as educators assigning grades to students, but why? In my research courses, I have often drawn attention to the question of how valid grades actually are. It is a classic example that students get – If a student gets a 0 on my exam, does that mean they have an absence of knowledge about research? Many would argue no. A large part of the grade depends on what I chose to test,  even in a so-called “objective” measurement like an exam. Most of the courses I teach have at least one highly subjective element to them – Essays. As Schinske and Tanner (2014)’s review confirms, numerical grades are unreliable.

Feedback not Numbers

Feedback is important for students to improve their writing skills. But it isn’t the numerical grade that helps them improve – it is the comments. My narrative, which is often not black and white. I suggest improvements, but the students are the experts on their topics. Just because I suggested something does not mean it must be done. Often a student does A, I suggest B and the best end result after a discussion ends up being C.

A low numerical grade can act as a good stimulus for a conversation to start, but it is not the only way to get students to read the feedback. Schinske and Tanner (2014) examined research which led to the conclusion that

providing evaluative feedback (in this case, grades) after a task does not appear to enhance students’ future performance in problem solving.

In fact, the evidence confirms what my experience suggests: students do not actually read comments. The research they reviewed suggests that comments have a higher chance of being read if no numerical grade is attached (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). Moreover, they found no evidence to indicate that numerical grades motivated students to learn. They even make an argument that grading is unfair.


If assigning a grade to a student is unreliable, unfair, detracts from their improvement, and fails to motivate learning, then why have I been doing it for so long?

It is still important for learning objectives in a course to be met. There must be a better way to do education. I am excited to see how my new approach for evaluation works. Instead of assigning grades or dictating rubrics I am guiding learning. We will co-create rubrics and negotiate grades based on a combination of my feedback and self-assessment. This article was a reassuring read, but much more research is needed. Please let me know your thoughts, send articles my way and feel free to research me.

PS: Actually, I would love to build a research project around the experience with this course. Any ideas are welcome!


Laura Killam is an experienced nursing educator from Northern Ontario with a keen interest in improving student learning through innovation. For more information please visit


Melanie Lefebvre · August 27, 2018 at 10:34 pm

I am totally sending you a meeting request to pick your brain further. 🙂

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